Obituary: Jacques Derogy

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Jacques Weitzmann (Jacques Derogy), journalist and writer: born Paris 24 July 1925; married (one son, two daughters); died Paris 30 October 1997.

It is sad to think that Jacques Derogy will not be able to follow the trial of the former Vichy official, Maurice Papon, now taking place in Bordeaux. So far it has been concerned with events in France during the 1940s, and with certain episodes that occurred when Papon was Prefect of Police in Paris during the 1960s. Both subjects in which Derogy was an expert.

He was never called an historian, but always hailed as the country's outstanding investigative journalist, meaning that when some mysterious event occurred he discovered what had happened and sought to explain why it had happened. And whilst this meant questioning witnesses, interviewing judges and police, following up the hints and the hunches which distinguished the profession, it also meant discovering the relevant history.

He began his career as a journalist when very young. At the age of 19 he had taken refuge in the Resistance movement, mainly in the Ardeche department. His name was Jacques Weitzmann and with his father Henri, who was also a journalist, he was escaping from both Vichy and German round-ups of Jews. With the Liberation, he took a degree in Philosophy and started to work for left-wing, anti-clerical newspapers like Franc- Tireur and L'Intransigeant.

His main interests were in the creation of the state of Israel and in attempts, usually British, to stop Jewish settlement there, and in social movements at home. He wrote in favour of birth control, which brought him into conflict with Jeannette Vermeersch, the dominant woman in the French Communist Party, with which he had had some sympathy.

In 1959, he joined the weekly paper L'Express and he was to continue working there until 1987, when he joined another weekly, L'Evenement du Jeudi. It was during this period that he accomplished some of his most spectacular pieces of writing.

There was, for example, the affair of the Moroccan opposition leader who was living in Paris and who, on 29 October 1965, was preparing to enter the Brasserie Lipp, on the Boulevard Saint Germain, when he was stopped by two French police. At their request he was driven away and taken to Fontenay-le-Vicomte, in the department of the Essonne. So far as the world was concerned, he was never seen again, and his body has never been found. It was L'Express which published the news that it was General Mohammed Oufkir, the Moroccan Minister of the Interior, who had stabbed and killed Ben Berka, whom he had considered to be a dangerous political enemy.

Derogy also dealt with the massacre at Auriol, in the countryside near to Marseilles. On 18 July 1981, a group of masked men captured a family of five, including a little boy of seven, who were eating their midday meal together. Subsequently, they and the head of the family were all killed. The reason for this, as Derogy discovered, was that the men were all members of an underground Gaullist organisation, the Service d'Action Civique, which had been created to protect the Gaullists from the vengeance of Algerian settlers. But this parallel police had greatly declined and had become corrupt. Derogy discovered that the head of the killer group, Jean-Joseph Maria, claimed that he had been a colonel of paratroopers who had seen much more active service, but in reality he had done his military service as a private soldier in Nancy.

The investigation for which Derogy was justly most proud was that which concerned Touvier. This began on 23 November 1971, when President Pompidou signed a decree which conveyed a full pardon to Paul Touvier, a name that then meant nothing to the French public. Jean Derogy proceeded to find out who Touvier was and why he had been pardoned.

He discovered that he was investigating someone who had been a member of the Milice, the special force in Vichy France that had proclaimed its loyalty to the Germans. Touvier had been found guilty of several capital crimes that had been committed in the region of Lyons, and although he had succeeded in taking flight he had been twice condemned to death in his absence. By the statute of limitations the death sentences expired in 1967, but since he was still inconvenienced by some laws (that he should not live in Paris, that he could not inherit from his father) he had applied for a presidential pardon. He was supported by certain church dignitaries.

The revelations of Derogy were part of the process whereby France was discovering its past. His article was the starting point for the long process which led to the capture and the trial of Touvier in 1994.

Derogy never made the mistake of becoming a one-issue man. After two articles on Touvier he moved on. The Fifth Republic, like the Fourth, was full of subjects which demanded investigation. The powers of the Elysee police unit, for example, or who was responsible for the Greenpeace venture which led to the death of an innocent photographer. Very often working with Jean-Marie Pontaut, Derogy showed that the achievement of a scoop was the result of hard work. He was always accompanied by a briefcase overflowing with papers. He talked well, but he was an excellent listener.

One cause that he always supported was that of Israel. But he opposed the Netanyahu programme of expansion, and he believed in the revival of the peace process. He published a piece on this in Le Monde, on 13 August. And his signature appeared on a similar article the day after his death.